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Special report – Bakau, A Gambian fishing town losing territory to coastal erosion

The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and fish-mongers are heavily threatened in a Gambian fishing town of Bakau. The landing site is under natural eviction threat due to rapid diminution of beaches. Coastal erosion is evident on the site as buildings are partially undermined by the sea-waves while fishing boats are losing anchoring points – leading to a potential displacement and joblessness. 

The sea continues to claim the fishermen’s wharf

I remember my younger days in the 80s when we used to play on the beach and that area has now fallen far into the sea. Experts would always say that the climate change has affected the continent but I think Gambia’s situation is extreme,” Omar Bojang, a fisherman said in an interview at the wharf, estimating that the sea has already claimed more than 100 meters from the land.

The buildings that are constructed on the beach including houses for fishermen overnight and the smokehouses for women, are visibly undermined by water halfway.  “In the next five years, we are likely going to be forced out of here. It’s like you have a boat and you have nowhere to anchor. So, you have no choice but to quit,” Omar who is in his 40s told this journalist. He is said to have been fishing at the landing site for over three decades.

Environmental experts have predicted that Banjul, the country’s capital city, will be submerged along the 80km coastline by floods in decades to come. This is due to coastal erosion which continues to ravage the small-West African nation.

According to the joint research conducted by the FAO and Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBoS), around 30,000 Gambians are employed in the aquaculture and fisheries sector. The Fisheries Department estimates that the sector contributed about 5% to GDP in 2014-2015 while artisanal activity accounted for 90% of all aquaculture and fisheries outputs in 2013-2014.

The sea waves continue to erode sand: “Looking at these buildings, you would know that it’s not just about being fearful about our livelihoods but our lives as well. But we have no choice because we must do the job to feed ourselves and families,” Omar said.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA) of The Gambia, the country is classified among the lowland countries, putting more than 2 million of its population at risk.

We’ve been appealing to the government for intervention because we are losing our livelihoods gradually. We hope they will come to our rescue and do some measures that will maintain this place for us,” Nato Sawaneh, a fish smoker said.

The smoke house occupied by Nato and several other women who rely on fish-smoking for survival is also partially dug out by the sea erosion. “This is how much threat it poses to our livelihoods and I think about this every day.

A big economic and ecologic disaster 

An adviser to the Association of Fishermen in Bakau, Foday Labang Jarju, said the damage of sea erosion has already started. According to him, there is a massive economic loss to the coastal erosion.

Coastal erosion is a big disaster because it has seriously reduced fishing activities on this landing site. In fact, so many fishermen have abandoned here and migrated with their boats to other areas like Tanji and Kartong because the site has lost its anchoring grips to erosion.

“Even the middlemen have left for other sites. We are breadwinners of our families and we must survive,” Jarju appealed.

Apart from the anchoring points and the smoke house, the snow house is also facing the impact. “Our snow house is in danger at the moment, and our stores also are in danger. The water has been undermining it.”

Resourceless and powerless local council 

Bakau fish landing site falls under the Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC). The agency is aware of the problem but fixing the landing site is above their budget line. The environment committee chair of the Council, Lamin Dibba admitted the extent of the damage to the community.

The erosion is posing a serious threat not only to the fishmongers or catchers but even the people in the town. It’s my concern as a councillor because I know my people are getting their livelihoods from here. If this side disappears now it will be hard for them to feed themselves and take care of their social needs,” he said.

However, Councillor Dibba, said the solution to the situation is beyond the financial powers of the municipality due to limited annual revenues they collect.

When you look at this site, it means not only the KMC but even the government must take a serious step. Apart from the fishing sector, this [coastal erosion] is even posing a serious threat to the hotels around this area. It’s a concern for all. This sector employs a lot of youths and women and if erosion takes over everything here it will complicate life for them and add to the struggling unemployment rate. It’s my big concern and whatever assistance we can have to reclaim the land from the sea will be good.”

According to The Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBoS), youth unemployment has increased from 38 percent to 41.5 percent in 2018.

Sanna Sama, a local fisheries officer posted to the landing site by the Department of Fisheries, did not downplay the threats to livelihoods

The timid response from the government’s environmental agency

The National Environment Agency (NEA) is the technical arm of the government dealing with climate change and environmental issues. The head of the coastal and marine environment unit of the agency, Lamin Komma says they have been putting adaptive measures to control the impact of coastal erosion.

The option is to come up with measures to protect the coastline because you cannot fight nature. Nature is taking its course but you have to adapt and this is why in most coastal countries including Gambia you have coastal adaptation measures,” he says.

Among such measures, Komma said heavy cement blocks were placed on the coastline from Senegambia to Bakau to protect the coast from being further eroded. But he admits that the impact has already posed threat to fisheries, tourism and other small-scale businesses along the coastline.

The Gambia’s fisheries minister James Gomez told this paper the government is working towards putting up sea defence at the landing site to avoid an immediate displacement of the fishermen.

I can assure you that the fear that they’ll be forced to relocate is not happening because the government has already secured funding for it.”

Mr Gomez however, refused to delve further into the funding and implementing issues of the project, referring the reporter to the ministry of environment, which is directly responsible.

The environment and climate change minister, Lamin Dibba has revealed that the ministry has already secured US$30 million from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) through the UNDP to start work on some of the vulnerable areas where it involves the livelihood of people particularly the fishing community.

The immediate solution is to slow down the velocity of the waves by making some holders that can be temporal solutions. But what we are talking about is finding a lasting solution to all these coastal issues particularly when it comes to economic assets,” said the minister.

According to the minister, the project is a follow up to the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funded project which put up sea-walls on the coastline which was phased out in 2018. He said the new project will make sure the beaches are protected.

GEF provided US$493,000 to the government in 2009 to finance the six-year ecosystem adaptation program as a measure to control the coastal erosion.

The Minister said the new project should have started this year but the plan could not work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Too late for a durable solution?

The environment and climate change expert, Omar Malmo Sambou, said pushing water using the sea-walls is not the solution to coastal erosion and fears that it’s too late for any permanent solution.

He said more permanent changes in global climatic phenomena will have a significant impact on the food basket of poor nations like the Gambia.

Water only looks for its level, pushing it back can never be a solution as it finds its way elsewhere. We need collective and collaborative efforts to tackle climate changeIt is a threat to human security and could lead to extreme poverty and widen the inequality gaps. Direct users of environmental resources are most vulnerable and often lack the capacity to adapt to such impacts,” Sambou said as he advocates for temporal measures.

If measures are not taken, we could lose most of the beaches, port infrastructure, fish landing sites and low-lying settlements to water and beach erosion. Inundation could take place in wetland areas.”

The failure of any sustainable measures could see a massive loss in the Gambia’s 4,000 square kilometres continental shelf and an Exclusive Economic (fishing) Zone (EEZ) of 19,500 square kilometres with an estimated fish yield of around 75,000 tonnes per annum,” according to Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency (GIEPA).

It could also affect the current annual off-take of around 29,000 tonnes which is far less than the potential of the sector.

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